The web is still the web

Neil McAllister at Fatal Exception, inspired by the recent announcement that some flash data will be exposed to search engines asks the very intriguing question, “Is the Web still the Web?” The reason for asking is the proliferation of Rich Internet Application (RIA) technologies such as the aforementioned Flash, Silverlight, Google Web Toolkit, and AJAX (sort of). As background, he invokes a history in which Tim Berners-Lee granted us simple text-only documents encoded in HTML. This is, apparently, The Way The Web Is Supposed To Be. He then draws the distinction between RIAs and HTML and asks:

Is it still the Web if it’s not really hypertext? Is it still the Web if you can’t navigate directly to specific content? Is it still the Web if the content can’t be indexed and searched? Is it still the Web if you can only view the application on certain clients or devices? Is it still the Web if you can’t view source?

My answer on all these counts: “Yes”. I’m pretty sure you could replace the term “RIAs” with “images” or “videos” in his argument at various points during the evolution of the web from nicely marked up physics documents all the way to YouTube. Point being that HTTP (as one of the key technologies which underpins the web) only asks that we be able to reference a resource via a URI but makes no claims to the representation of that resource. It’s a testament to the foresight of the original designers of web technologies that HTTP describes only how we locate, modify and de-reference resources and doesn’t come with a dependency on representing those resources in HTML. Neil seems to confuse “resource” with “HTML document”. They need not be the same thing. That would be poor design.

Text-based indexing and search as well as “view source” are (incredibly useful) byproducts of the fact that so many of the resources on the web are represented as HTML. Though it’s hard to remember a time before Google roamed the earth, it hasn’t been that long ago that text-based indexing and search didn’t really work either. In time these other representations of resources will be mined, indexed and made searchable. There’s a lot of money and a lot of smart people trying to make that happen.

As for whether or not it’s still the web if you can only view it on certain clients? Well, as anyone who’s ever tried to develop a standards compliant site that also works in IE6 can attest, even relatively simple HTML web resources have client-specific dependencies. As today’s limited devices get more powerful and as browsers (hopefully) converge towards a reasonable baseline of standards these issues, too, shall pass.

This leaves the hypertext question. The reason we call it the “web” is due to the web-like nature of the links going from one resource to another. HTML does a fantastic job of providing this web of links (the hyptertext) with that simple <a> tag we know and love. If these new technologies don’t encourage connections between resources then they’re not contributing to the “web-ness” of the web. There are two parts to this: linking to other resources and allowing themselves to be linked to. Just because they’re not HTML doesn’t mean you can’t do these things. You can create links to other resources with these technologies and you can create URIs that can point to resources “within” a resource represented by these technologies. That’s not to say you can’t create a Flash site with no outgoing links and no URIs to hook into for incoming links. Of course you can just as easily create a dead-end HTML page with no anchors.

So yes, in my opinion, the web is still the web. Because of the great separation of concerns in the design of the web’s technologies, people have been able to extend it far beyond the original vision as a document sharing mechanism. It’s the greatest platform for experimentation in all the ways we can connect and deliver information yet conceived. Because of this, there will always be innovations that push the boundaries of how we’ve experienced it in the past. RIAs are just another part of the web and its continued evolution.

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